The two faces of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Comments made this week on abortion demonstrate a serious character flaw in Turkey’s prime minister.

HL5K0570bLast week, addressing a UN conference on population and development, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “I am a prime minister who is against caesarean births. I consider abortion to be murder.”

Two days ago, he went even further. Speaking to a meeting of his AK Party – a meeting of his party’s women’s branch, no less – the Turkish prime minister explained how he considered caesareans to be part of “organised attempts to prevent the country’s population from increasing. They are attempting to keep this country’s population stops at a certain level.”

“Every abortion,” he went on, “is an Uludere”, referring to the southeastern village close to where 35 civilians were killed in a botched airstrike. “I ask you, what difference is there between killing a child in the mother’s womb, or killing after birth?

“We are compelled to fight this all together, because it is a sinister plan to wipe out this nation from the face of the earth. To allow this nation to multiply, we must not play to these games.”

The prime minister’s remarks were preposterous, yet utterly in character.

Preposterous, because Uludere is such a dreadful analogy to use. One is a human tragedy, the other is a position of social morality. The 35 civilians were killed in December last year by Turkish F16s after being spotted hiking their way across a mountain from Iraq. They were suspected members of the PKK; it turned out they were smuggling cigarettes and diesel.

The Uludere incident provoked outrage and street demonstrations across Turkey. Mr Erdoğan’s government promised recompense to the victim’s families and a full investigation, but refused to apologise. Mr Erdoğan himself appeared bemused that, months later, certain sections of the media were still running campaigns for justice and transparency. It was to these outlets that he addressed his foolish Uludere/abortion line this weekend.

It is incidents like these that demonstrate how there are two Recep Tayyip Erdoğans. The first is the darling of the Western world, that astute friend of foreign investment and face of moderate Islam, who managed what his predecessors could not by pushing the army out of day-to-day politics. The second is the boorish, pious conservative whose views on family planning, women’s rights and alcohol reveal a man who would relish the opportunity for a spot of social engineering.

The conflict between the two is stark: Mr Erdoğan’s policies in support of greater business policies makes him quite an economic liberal, but socially his record must rank him among Europe’s most illiberal. In 2004, he notoriously tried to introduce legislation that would criminalise adultery. After his 2007 re-election, he used his new-found paternalist image to roll out a spot of social engineering by demanding every Turkish family gives birth to three children.

His comments on abortion and caesareans this week could possibly be spun as a moment of confusion – does he *really* think caesareans are a population-controlling tool? His earnest health minister Recep Akdağ did try to explain that the government was planning a crackdown on unnecessary c-sections conducted by private hospitals wanting to claim a higher insurance premium, but Mr Erdoğan made no such announcement to his party’s women’s corps.

Instead, rumours abound in the Turkish press this week that the government is preparing to outlaw abortion. The governing AK Party’s shoddy record in personal freedoms is evidence enough that such hearsay could be based on the truth.

We’ve all heard plenty about the growing authoritarian strand in Turkey’s government, from imprisoned journalists to dodgy business deals. Much of it has been justified – or at least tolerated – by pointing to past decade’s marked improvement in Turkish living standards and the military’s reduced influence over everyday life. The question is, when will Turks reach the stage when they think Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Party is no longer worth the trouble?

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